Happiness Makes Us Adventurous, Study Finds

Feeling blue? You're more likely to stay in your comfort zone rather than venturing out to try something new, a recent study suggests. But as soon as you bounce back, so will that lure of exploration and adventure.

Scientists have known that we are drawn to the familiar, a phenomenon British psychologist Edward Titchener described as the "warm glow of familiarity" a century ago. But perhaps what we're at home with isn't always so enticing, the researchers surmised.

"We thought the value of familiarity would depend on the context," said study researcher Marieke de Vries, currently affiliated with the Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands. "Familiarity signals safety, which is pleasant in an unsafe or stressful context but might actually get boring when all is going fine."

Mood and familiarity

To find out, de Vries and colleagues presented participants with random dot patterns resembling constellations in the sky and made these familiar to them through exposure.

Then, the participants either recalled a joyous or sad event in their lives, which was meant to elicit a good or bad mood, respectively. During the remainder of the test, the good-mood participants listened to appropriately cheerful music while the sad group got an earful of music to match their moods.

Finally, the researchers measured the subjects' emotional and memory responses to dot patterns they had seen before and others they had not. Instead of just asking the participants if they were familiar with certain dot patterns and which they preferred, the scientists used physiological measures, such as skin conductors to assess sweat, and facial electrodes to detect frowns and smiles.

"When you recognize something your body rings an internal bell and you sweat a little bit more," said study researcher Piotr Winkielman, a psychology professor at the University of California, San Diego.

Participants primed to feel blue showed a preference for dot patterns they were familiar with from the first part of the study, even smiling at the sight of these dot arrangements.

A happy mood, however, eliminated that preference. In fact, these participants smiled more when looking at the unfamiliar patterns.

"When you're happy, known things, familiar things lose their appeal," Winkielman said. "Novelty, on the other hand, becomes more attractive."

Comfort foods

The finding may partly explain why we grab comfort foods when we're depressed, according to Winkielman. "You want to try new things when you're happy but when there is a signal of danger you go for the tried and true," Winkielman told LiveScience.

The phenomenon may have an evolutionary explanation.

"In evolutionary times [long ago], when everything was going well, animals might try out new berries or new grounds to graze, but when there's the possibility of a predator being around, they will go to a familiar place to eat and drink," Winkielman said. "That is probably why our minds have evolved this trick of exploring when things are safe and wanting something familiar when there is potential danger."

The results, which are detailed in the journal Psychological Science, have practical implications.

For example, when companies introduce new products, they may want to do so in settings that encourage a happy, playful mood. However, a doctor's office, which people visit rarely and in stressful circumstances, should probably stay away from edgy décor, opting instead for the comfy and familiar, Winkielman said.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the European Association of Experimental Social Psychology, Radboud University Nijmegen, and the Dutch Science Foundation.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.